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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 46, October 31, 2009

To be a Kashmiri and/or a Muslim!

Sunday 1 November 2009, by Humra Quraishi

The detention-cum-interrogation of the two young Kashmiri cricketers by the Bangalore Police is yet another of those ongoing instances of bias and insensitivity. How easy it is for the police to arrest Kashmiri Muslims! The ground-work is well prepared along that typical mindset-cum-format of Muslims being potential terrorists and the situation gets compounded if the word ‘Kashmiri’ is prefixed. And let’s not fool ourselves that this latest incident, involving the two Kashmiri cricketers, was one of those freak cases and so no further focus on it.

There seems to be a definite pattern. There have been instances where Kashmiri Muslims have been hounded, but in this particular case these two cricketers were part of a full-fledged team; so they stood a better chance of being let off. What if these boys were not cricketers but shawl–sellers or students? What would have been their fate? By now they could be sitting in one of the jails of Karnataka as freshly nabbed terrorists! In fact, way back in 2002, the PUDR had published a detailed report which highlighted the harassment meted out to Kashmiri Muslims venturing out of the Valley. And around that same year there had been news reports of the Uttar Pradesh Police arresting Kashmiri students from Western Uttar Pradesh. Those reports had peaked around 2003-04. Peaked to such an extent that there was a political hue and cry. And then came news reports of Gujarat based madrasas being under the scanner—especially those where Kashmiri boys were studying. And with the myths and biases in heavy circulation, it’s so easy to pin terror-tags on those young students and their teachers!

Why go any further when even here, in this Capital city, several Kashmiris have recounted horrifying details of what this city held out for them. Many couldn’t take the humiliation in trying to get a room on rent or even a PG accommodation or to go reporting to the local police station as though they were landing on foreign terrain! Several others couldn’t cope with the suspicious looks and taunts and queries thrown their way and decided to get back to the Valley.

Why should a Muslim or a Kashmiri Muslim be a suspect in her or his own country? What is the government and all the men under its command doing to halt this dangerous trend? Why shoulds a citizen of this democracy be looked at with suspicion or go through those humiliating round of questions and queries? Why is it so easy for the police to nab and arrest and torture just about anyone? Does the government realise the end result of this?

The Home Minister and Prime Minister of this country keep talking of the need to increase the very strength of the police force. What about making it unbiased in its approach? What about making it truly secular? What about de-linking it from the religious ideologies of the political rulers, from those tilts and notions?

Perhaps all these constitute a difficult task. Activists recount that local police stations and thanas in several States of this country resemble mini-mandirs! Several of my Ahmedabad based Christian friends have minced no words in detailing that you need nerves of steel to enter these police stations for one look at the religious frills around and you are well aware of the second-class treatment meted out to the minority segments… This brings me to ask the very obvious—why should religious motifs (from any religion or faith or belief) be displayed and flaunted in government set-ups in a democratic republic? Why should any jail or prison or police station look like a mini-masjid or mandir or church?

Whilst on Ahmedabad, as I had written in one of my previous columns, it was such a painful experience to have visited that city (just about once, almost three years back) that I wouldn’t like to re-visit it. Right from the cab driver to the hotel waiter, they spoke along communal lines …. the communal virus prevailing, at its peak. And as I had gone about meeting and talking to the hapless Muslim parents whose sons were imprisoned under POTA, it got hopelessly depressing … cases of police torture, political brutality, injustices of the worst kind …and one wondered what sort of governance is on.

Worsening Ground Realities …

If only the top brass of this government had attended a three-day meet held here in New Delhi, focusing on ‘what does it mean to be a Muslim in India?’, then perhaps the ground realities would have hit. Hit hard. Organised by ANHAD and SIASAT, it drew speakers from different parts of the country and had several of the who’s who on its jury: Ahmad Saeed Malihabadi, Asghar Ali Engineer, Admiral Ramdas, Colin Gonsalves, Gagan Sethi, Ghanshyam Shah, Hanif Lakdawala, Harsh Mander, Kavita Srivastava, Mahesh Bhatt, Prashant Bhushan, Ram Punyani, Rooprekha Verma, Sukumar Muralidharan, Tarun Tejpal, Uma Chakravarti, Zafar Agha, Zahid Ali Khan, Zoya Hassan.

And though the details of what the speakers spoke out at this meet, together with the findings and recommendations are elaborate, space constraints come in way—so let me focus on the crux.

The predominant finding of the meet was that there is an intense, almost universal sentiment of fear and growing despair among Muslim citizens of the country. Many of those who testified in the meet went so far as to declare that they felt reduced to second-class citizenship. They shared their mounting disillusionment with all institutions of governance, and more so with the police and judiciary, as well as with political parties and to some extent the media. … There is, on the one hand, the constant dread of being profiled as a terrorist, or of a loved one being so profiled, with the attendant fears of illegal and prolonged detention, denial of bail, torture, unfair and biased investigation and trial, and extra-judicial killings. There is, on the other hand, the lived experience of day-to-day discrimination, in education, employment, housing and public services, which entrap the community in hopeless conditions of poverty and want. This is fostered in a situation of pervasive communal prejudice in all institutions of the state, especially the police, civil administration and judiciary; and also the political leadership of almost all parties; large segments of the print and visual media; and the middle classes, and the systematic manufacture of hate and divide by communal organisations.

And it has also come forth with a list of recomm-endations. If only the establishment was serious and earnest in improving the prevailing situation, then these realities together with the recommen-dations should not go bypassed. And surprising or actually not really surprising—many of these recommendations do not necessarily revolve around the economic and social spheres, but go much beyond—highlighting that sense of insecurity spreading amongst the Muslims of this country. Some of these recommendations are as follows:

There should be a high-powered Judicial Commission headed by a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court appointed to examine all cases of terror across the country. Those that seem doubtful or fabrications should be handed over to a Special Investigation Team appointed and supervised by the high-powered Judicial Commission. It should complete its task in one year, so that prolonged detention of persons against whom there is little convincing evidence is not prolonged further…. In cases in which it is obvious that false cases were framed and evidence fabricated, the police officers should be prosecuted (tampering with evidence in cases which can result in capital punishment is itself a capital crime). Victims who were detained and ultimately found innocent should be paid compensation by the state for the suffering and lost years of their lives.

… There is a perceived slowdown in investigating and prosecuting cases of alleged terror activities by Right-wing Hindutva organisations. These investigations should be resumed, and placed under the leadership of officers of impeccable secular credentials and integrity…The UPA Government must immediately redeem its pledge and enact the Communal Violence (Prevention, Control and Rehabilitation of Victims) Bill, but not in its present form. It must incorporate the major elements suggested by civil society groups.

Communal violence is, by its very nature, a targeted crime and a mass crime, perpetrated on a community of persons. As such these crimes do not find themselves reflected in the Indian Penal Code, 1860 and other extant penal laws. Because of their nature as ‘targeted mass crimes’, they need to be recognised as such, drawing upon the concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity… Officials who carry communal prejudices should be identified, and removed from sensitive positions in which their decisions have a bearing on minorities, such as in the departments of home, education, welfare, information, and in financial institutions…

And Ongoing …

And the list of detentions and with that the spread of a sense of insecurity seems growing, ongoing … In fact, last month—September 2009—Shabnam Hashmi, Vrinda Grover and Harsh Mander came forth with details of several Muslim men illegally detained in Baroda by the Gujarat Police. To quote these activists,

In a pattern which has become increasingly familiar in many parts of India, but particularly in Gujarat… in Gujarat, a number of Muslim youth were picked up by police officials in plain clothes, illegally detained and severely tortured, before they were sent to judicial custody: Zahir Abbas Amiruddin Shaikh, resident of Hathikhana Patel Faliya, Opp. Bismilla Mutton Shop, Fatima complex. Usmangani alias Nawab Abdul Gaffar Ansari, residing at Kalriwad, B/s. H. M. Batliwala, Fatepura, Baroda. Amin Razzak Shah, residing at B/208, Richmond Tower, B/h. Convent School, Fatehgunj, Baroda. Iqbal alias Ikku Majidbhai Shaikh, Age—39 years, residing at 109, Rashida Apptt., Hathikhana Patel Faliya, Baroda. Mustak Ismail Shaikh, 34 years, residing at Gujarat Mention building, Hathikhana Patel Faliya … They were formally presented to the magistrate after a gap of five or more days, during which they allege that they were blind-folded and taken into a farm-house at Sivasi Gotri Road in Village Sindhrot and brutally tortured. The police charged them with planning to bomb the Ganesh Visarjan Yatra and for possessing Sutli bombs and rocket launcher. The police claimed to have recovered these items from a closed hand cart. The Police Commissioner called a press conference on September 7, 2009 and all local newspapers flashed the news in bold headlines.

Families of these arrested men told Shabnam Hashmi, Harsh Mander, Rahul Rashtrapal and Gagan Sethi that these young men had no criminal records, were picked up by the police sometimes using force, sometimes taking them under false pretences... Family members were not informed about their whereabouts. … And in a written complaint Shabnam Hashmi and other activists have named certain senior police officers presently posted in Baroda for these blatant violations and detentions.

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